The invention of care

A friend recently sent me a screenshot of a Facebook conversation from a neighborhood group in an affluent area of Houston. A mother was asking for recommendations for a personal trainer for her four-year-old son – yes, she actually wanted to hire a professional personal trainer for a preschooler – because her son was having difficulty running and would frequently fall down or crash into things.

What was surprising about the conversation was how many respondents took this request very seriously. The one mother who responded sensibly, suggesting that this was normal development and the mother should spend more time outside with her child herself, you know, just kicking around a soccer ball or something, was shamed by the group for being disrespectful of the honestly delivered “needs” expressed in the original post. There was nothing to do but laugh at it all.

I’ve given up all of my social media accounts, mainly because I don’t enjoy what social media turns people into. Attention is the currency of social media, and it leads to a lot of personal and collective insanity. People say things and start to believe things they never would if they lived most of their lives in the real world.

I’ve seen people on social media behaving like a pack of dogs in the wild more times than I can count, wanting to cause people actual harm, in their relationships or career, because of some perceived slight that was amplified to strangers. I have no doubt that social media is at the center of phenomena like school violence and bullying, teen suicide, exponential increases in kids adopting fringe lifestyles that defy any rational clinical explanation, and many other social issues. (See my earlier posts, The Lonely Generation and What the Society of the Spectacle Says About the Life Cycle of Social Media Platforms.) It’s nuts, I have no idea why anyone continues to engage in that. I have no idea why more parents aren’t flat-out fighting their kids over social media use, as it stands to impair every aspect of their future happiness.

But that’s just the destructiveness of social media on a personal level. What’s interesting is folks are starting to study the economic and other impacts of this behavior as a sort of epidemiological concern. What does it look like when you stop talking about social media as a personal problem and more like a disease that scales up through society?

The health insurer Cigna did this recently, studying “loneliness” as a generational problem, among other things. The insurer was not at all altruistic in launching this investigation. It is known that the federal government spends at least $6.7 billion more on Medicare for clients that lack social contact. People will invent a malaise just to have people pay attention to them. And this practice of inventing illnesses or other opportunities to be cared for becomes an entrenched mental illness as it is habituated.

Loneliness as a durable psychological condition impacts people at the extremes of the age spectrum the most: teenagers and young adults and the elderly.

And it turns out that social media is not “social” contact at all from a psychological perspective. In Cigna’s research, there is “an increasing correlation between social media usage and feelings of loneliness. Seven out of 10 heavy social media users, 71%, reported feelings of loneliness, up from 53% a year ago. That compares to 51% of light social media users feeling lonely, up from 47% a year ago.”

When you see posts like a mother who wants to hire a personal trainer for a preschooler, chances are she’s not asking for that advice because she is a stupid or a negligent mother. Chances are she simply wants the attention such a provocative post would inevitably attract. She wants the people who would react in astonishment. She wants the people piling on in defense of her absurd request, as if the people mocking it were physically abusing her person. It’s all attention, and if she had posted something mundane, she wouldn’t be getting attention. It’s not any different than the 75-year-old who feels like they are having a heart attack one day and malaria the next. What they crave is contact – any kind of contact – and social media a poor narcotic substitute.

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